Ken Paxton emerges victorious from yet another career scandal

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton looks up at the gallery during the first day of his impeachment trial in the Texas Senate chambers at the Texas State Capitol in Austin on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2023. (Juan Figueroa/Pool Via The Dallas Morning News, Juan Figueroa/Pool Via The Dallas Morning News)

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Ken Paxton rides again.

Beset by years of legal, personal and political problems, Texas’ scandal-resilient attorney general scored his biggest vindication yet Saturday when the state Senate voted for acquittal in his impeachment trial.

It marked a screaming milestone in a two-decade political career that has seen Paxton harness the state’s increasingly conservative politics — and later the rise of Donald Trump — to stay in power longer than his vulnerabilities would suggest.

Like Trump, he retains a political base that is willing to overlook his personal failings as long as he’s a leader in fighting the left. And like Trump, he was impeached by the House but saved by a Senate where fellow Republicans were uninterested in crossing that influential base.

Now, Paxton emerges from the trial newly emboldened, a folk hero of the state’s most conservative flank in Texas’ Republican civil war.

Paxton released a statement celebrating his acquittal, saying the “truth prevailed.” He is not expected to speak out again until an interview next week with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson.

[Ken Paxton’s impeachment trial escalates Texas Republican civil war]

“It’s not only a victory for the rule of law and Constitution, but it’s a victory in what's been a longtime battle in the Republican Party,” Paxton’s chief political adviser, Nick Maddux, said in an interview. All the party’s internal fights, he added, “came to a boiling point in the summer of 2023.”

Maddux added that the House “made a tremendous miscalculation” on how the Senate would view the impeachment. “All they did was make [Paxton] stronger in the party,” Maddux said.

[After winning impeachment fight, Paxton still faces felony fraud case and an FBI investigation]

While Paxton emerges from the trial with new political clout, his legal problems persist. He is expected to go to trial next year in a long-running securities fraud case. He could still be indicted by a federal grand jury in the claims that were central to his impeachment trial — that he abused his office to help a friend and donor, Nate Paul.

House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, alluded to Paxton’s ongoing legal issues in responding to his acquittal.

“If new facts continue to come out, those who allowed him to keep his office will have much to answer for,” Phelan said in a statement.

For now, though, Paxton gets to bask in the limelight unlike ever before.

Matt Rinaldi, the chair of the Texas GOP who opposed Paxton’s impeachment, said Paxton has been able to weather controversy for so long for two reasons: He continues to deliver on campaign promises and GOP voters are considering the source of allegations.

“People don’t trust the allegations against him because people don’t trust institutions anymore,” Rinaldi said.

Rinaldi pointed to the trial, where the credibility of the FBI was a major topic and multiple House witnesses expressed faith in the agency, which Republicans have increasingly come to view with suspicion.

“That encapsulates why people distrust all these allegations in the first place,” Rinaldi said

Two decades in elected office

First elected to the Legislature in 2002, Paxton carved out a profile as a hardline conservative and ran against the GOP speaker, Joe Straus, in 2010, a futile campaign that nonetheless ingratiated him with an ascendant wing of the party.

By the time his local Texas Senate seat opened up in 2012, the Tea Party movement was in full force and Paxton easily won, facing no opposition in the primary.

He did not spend much time in the Senate, though, launching a campaign months later to replace Greg Abbott as attorney general in 2014. He went to a primary runoff against then-state Rep. Dan Branch, a more moderate Republican allied with the Bush family. Boosted by an implicit endorsement from U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, a rising star in the party, Paxton won the runoff by a nearly 2-to-1 margin.

It was during that contest, though, that the roots of Paxton’s most persistent legal problem took hold. A few weeks before the runoff, the Texas Securities Board reprimanded him and fined him $1,000 for soliciting investment clients without being registered.

Paxton paid the fine and sought to move on, but seven months into his first year as attorney general, a Collin County grand jury indicted him of three felony counts of securities fraud and failing to register as an investment adviser. He was accused of offering to sell people stock in McKinney technology company without disclosing the company was compensating him.

He faces up to 99 years in prison.

A host of pretrial disputes — initiated by both sides — has delayed the trial to this day. A date could be finally set at an Oct. 6 hearing.

Paxton also was charged by federal prosecutors in the securities matter, but he beat the case within months, perhaps his last decisive win in his personal legal dramas.

If any of the charges bothered Republicans, they did not show it. Paxton did not draw any primary opposition in 2018. He still had an unexpectedly close general election, notching a 4 percentage point win against Justin Nelson, a Democratic lawyer who had plastered Paxton’s mugshot on billboards across the state.

By 2020, Paxton had become entangled with Nate Paul, an Austin real estate investor and campaign donor whose business empire was crumbling. Their increasingly close relationship alarmed Paxton’s top deputies so much that seven of them reported Paxton to the FBI in the fall.

“We have a good faith belief that the attorney general is violating federal and/or state law including prohibitions related to improper influence, abuse of office, bribery and other potential criminal offenses,” the whistleblowers said.

Furthermore, the whistleblowers’ claims brought to light that Paxton had cheated on his wife with a woman employed by Paul, undercutting his image as a family-values conservative.

As Paxton’s problems worsened, he tied himself closer than ever to Trump. He filed a failed lawsuit asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Trump’s reelection loss in four battleground states, and he spoke at a Washington, D.C., rally before the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. The Texas Bar Association has since sued alleging professional misconduct related to his effort to delegitimize the president.

The whistleblower claims were enough to earn Paxton a serious primary challenge in 2022 from three high-profile candidates: Land Commissioner George P. Bush, former state Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman and U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler. Texans for Lawsuit Reform, the powerful tort reform group, and its donors got behind Guzman, showing a new willingness by the GOP establishment to try to stop Paxton.

Bush forced Paxton to a runoff, but it was not even close as Paxton took two-thirds of the vote. Paxton leaned on an early reelection endorsement from Trump, and in the runoff, he promised to “end the Bush dynasty.”

Paxton faced Democrat Rochelle Garza in the general election but beat her by a wider margin than he did Nelson.

Caleb Milne, a longtime Democratic activist in Collin County, said it has been “continuously frustrating” to watch Paxton evade accountability for so long, especially at the ballot box.

“We thought … Rochelle Garza had a decent shot at him just because there was so much there, and there’s just so much that’s been an indicator of corruption in the Republican Party,” Milne said. “We probably should’ve understood that doesn’t necessarily cause defections within the party.”

Not going away

So what comes next for Paxton?

Even before he was impeached, his supporters were promoting him as a potential candidate for U.S. Senate in 2026, when Republican John Cornyn is up for reelection. There is no love lost between Paxton and Cornyn, the rare Texas Republican who has continuously raised concern about the whistleblower claims.

Paxton’s closeness with Trump could also continue to bear fruit, especially as Trump looks more and more likely to be next year’s Republican presidential nominee. Long before the Texas impeachment, the former president had even floated tapping Paxton for U.S. attorney general if he wins the White House again.

In the nearer term, Paxton could seek revenge against House Republicans who impeached him by campaigning against them in the March 2024 primaries. Paxton’s longtime loyal aide, Michelle Smith, already donated in July to a primary challenger to state Rep. Andrew Murr, R-Junction, who chaired the House impeachment managers.

“HELL YES I DID!” Smith tweeted after the donation became public. “And I’m gonna give more where that came from.”

After this acquittal Saturday, Paxton retweeted a post promoting the challenger, Wes Virdell.

Rinaldi said he expects Paxton to be “instrumental” and “very active” in the primaries.

Paxton's wife, State Sen. Angela Paxton, has already signaled that she is not going anywhere. She made a point of announcing her reelection campaign the weekend before the impeachment trial started.

The latest polling from the University of Texas at Austin found that while Paxton’s approval rating with all voters was at a two-year low, he remained popular with Republicans by a 2-to-1 margin.

Even if he had been convicted, political observers had expected it would not be the end of his political career. Paxton, they said, has proven to be a political survivor many times over.

“They’ve utterly destroyed him, but if you look at the polling data, he’s still extremely strong,” said Bob Stein, a political scientist at Rice University. “My guess is he’s not going away.”

Disclosure: Rice University, Texans for Lawsuit Reform and University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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